Author: Joshua Partlow
"A kingdom of their own" | The brothers who failed the West in Afghanistan
What went wrong for the West in Afghanistan? Why couldn’t a global coalition led by the world’s pre-eminent military and economic power defeat “a bunch of farmers in plastic sandals on dirt bikes” in a conflict that outlasted both the World Wars combined?
Was it the nature of the country, the flaw in the outcome they wanted, or their unreliable local allies?
All of these may be contributing reasons but perhaps holding the key is the last reason, in particular the Karzai family, whose roller-coaster but ultimately downhill relations with the US mirrored, in a way, what happened between the superpower and their war-torn country.
But how did a relationship that began with such promise between the Karzais, several of whom had lived and flourished in the US before returning to their homes when the Taliban was chased out, turn so toxic that President Hamid Karzai, who owed his accession and power to the US, went to the extent of calling his allies “demons”? Joshua Partlow, now The Washington Post’s Bureau Chief in Mexico, but was its Kabul Bureau Chief from 2009 to 2012, seeks to tell how.
Having travelled extensively across Afghanistan, from the Karzais’ ancestral village to the Presidential Palace in Kabul, he has talked to a wide cross-section of people, both Americans and Afghans, from President Karzai down to his far cousin – whose old vendetta with the more prominent section cost his family dear – and from politicians to diplomats, security men to businessmen, bankers to mullahs, to examine what went wrong and when.
Partlow, who shared an Overseas Press Club award in 2010 for the best newspaper or news service reporting from abroad for their series on the war in Afghanistan with Rajiv Chandrasekaran (also known for chronicling US misadventures in Iraq in “Imperial Life in the Emerald City”), is no less scathing on US confusion, its divided responsibilities and efforts, its vicious turf fights, its misplaced priorities and, above all, its penchant for “overkill”. Several grim instances of the last are present in the book.
It also unrolls a staggering tale of corruption and abuse of power in an impoverished country, hoping for peace and prosperity after decades of strife, but seeing excesses flourish unchecked despite the best efforts of a small band of earnest and dedicated Afghans and Americans who never received any support or were stopped before they could take their investigations to a logical end.
But Partlow’s main focus is on the Karzais – especially President Hamid, his half-brother Ahmed Wali, who was the top power in Kandahar, and businessmen Mahmood, though the story goes back in time to the 1980s. It also draws in the older generation – their father Abdul Ahad, and his half-brother Khalil Karzai, who could have become a prominent leader had he not fallen victim to a typical trait of the Pashtuns, in whose language the word for “cousin” and “rival” are the same.
All the same, the author does not seek to pin blame on either side, but just chronicles the gulf separating a superpower, confident of its military and technological prowess solving any problem, and a still nearly-feudal state characterised by a bewildering mosaic of entrenched tribal loyalties, patronage networks and informal administrative systems, and a penchant for conspiracy theories. And in the course of his account, Partlow is brilliantly incisive and vivid, inserting some unforgettable sights and sounds, or apt Pushto or Dari proverbs.
But Partlow is kind on both the principal Karzai brothers. He makes a balanced assessment of the President, who is shown as personally honest, and notes the contrary American policy imperatives he was presented across his tenure.
He is as fair as possible to Ahmed Wali, who inspired contrary feelings among his American interlocutors, some wary of him and wanting him out – despite finding no hard evidence – and many others who could not praise him enough for all his assistance.
Ultimately, he indicates that Afghanistan was possibly a “Graveyard of Empires” not because of its men’s fighting prowess, but because no outsider understood or appreciated its intricate, baffling dynamics to run it successfully.